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World Press Freedom Review
1998 World Press Freedom Review
Singaporeís media policy is the symbol of the so-called "Asian model" of journalism. The government not only restricts freedom of speech and the press and intimidates journalists into practising self-censorship, as in many other countries; but Singapore is one of the very few countries where even the Constitution permits official restrictions on freedom of expression. The Internal Security Act permits the government to prohibit or to place conditions on publications that incite violence; that counsel disobedience to the law; that might arouse tensions among the various classes (races, religions, and language groups); or that might threaten national interests, national security, or public order. The government uses a broad definition of these laws to restrict political opposition and criticism, and it does not tolerate discussions in the press of alleged government corruption, nepotism, or a compliant judiciary.
Censorship of materials and the decision to deny the importation of specific publications are based on a determination that such materials would undermine the stability of the State, contravene moral norms, show excessive or gratuitous sex and violence, glamorise or promote drug use, or incite racial, religious, or linguistic animosities. Government leaders often criticise what they call the "Western model" of journalism, in which the media are free to report the news as they see it. Officials argue that the role of the domestic media is to act responsibly, which is generally understood to mean support for the goals of the elected leadership and preservation of social and religious harmony.
All general circulation newspapers in all four official languages - English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil - are owned by Singapore Press Holdings Ltd., a private holding company that has close ties to the national leadership. Hence, editorials and coverage of domestic events closely mirror government policies and the opinions of government leaders. Moreover, under amendments to the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act, the government may limit the circulation of foreign publications that it determines interfere in Singaporeís domestic politics.
What is proving more challenging is keeping control over the proliferating information technology (IT), in particular the Internet. In this regard Singapore is trying hard, implementing harsh and stringent regulations regarding Internet use, which have been the focus of intense global criticism in recent years.
In the first months of 1998, the government took further steps to help the censors in their hard work with media technology, including widening its definition of "publication" and streamlining its various censorship bodies. Singaporeís government never hid its view that media censorship is necessary to protect moral values and maintain internal security, and so also announced that it didnít want to exempt the media of the IT age. In order to execute this, they announced in February that they were pulling various media censorship and licensing bodies into one unit to make life easier for importers and others, partly "in response to the advances in technology". It also expanded provisions of its act regulating "obscene" films to include new technologies like compact discs, digital video discs, electronic mail; and made similar changes in its publication act, expanding the definition of "publication" to include CD-ROMs, sound recording, pictures and drawings generated by computer graphics. Finally, a law was implemented banning political parties from making films and videos.
Several members of parliament criticised the move to ban parties from making videos or buying television time. Media regulations are generally widely accepted in Singapore in the belief that they are rooted in the nationís history of racial and religious divisions. Singapore was formed by competing ethnic groups, playing against each other, and riots ensued. There is, therefore, a deep feeling of justification for regulation to restrict the press to avoid violence. But the ban on political parties making videos was seen as a political manoeuvre by the leadership in power to weaken the opposition. Information and Art Minister George Yeo, however, dismissed objections, arguing that their "intention is to keep political debates in Singapore serious and not have them become like the selling of soap. In the wrong hands film can have a powerful impact," as he told parliament.
Asked about the new regulations expanding censorship to new technologies, Yeo said: "It is not our objective to increase the level of censorship in Singapore. Just maintaining the existing level of censorship is difficult enough."
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